I’ve heard a good deal of Cecilia McDowall’s music in the last couple of decades. Almost invariably I’ve been impressed and delighted by what I’ve heard, so I was very pleased when this new CD from the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge arrived with me for review.
Much of the disc is devoted to a cappella choral music; I’ve heard most of these pieces before. Alma redemptoris mater was written for The Marian Consort. Indeed, it was the very first piece composed for that ensemble and it was through their recording that I first encountered it. The lilting rhythms, harmonies and shape of the melodic lines conspire to evoke Renaissance, if not Medieval, vocal music. High voices are to the fore—the scoring is SSATBB—and in this performance the music sounds like angels dancing joyfully.
O Oriens is one of the seven so-called Great ‘O’ antiphons that, in the week leading up to Christmas, are said or sung at the office of Vespers or Evensong before the Magnificat. Cecilia McDowall wrote this antiphon for the Choir of Merton College, Oxford. The words speak of Christ as the Morning Star but I was struck by the perceptive comment of Paul Conway in his notes that the nature of the music ‘ensure[s] that the threat of darkness is ever-present’. That’s especially true of the almost oppressive nature of the writing at the hushed opening and close of the piece. McDowall presents a vision of a struggle to get out of darkness into the light and, at the work’s close it’s far from certain that the struggle is successful. We shall be encountering this music again, later in the programme.
Standing as I do before God is a moving meditation on the fate of nurse Edith Cavell, executed by the Germans in 1915 for helping and sheltering escaping allied soldiers. The text combines some words which Cavell spoke on the eve of her execution and a reflection on her fate by the poet Seán Street (b 1946). McDowall’s music is intense yet it also pays due regard to Cavell’s dignity. It’s a moving composition and it’s given an excellent performance here, not least by the fine soprano soloist, Anita Monserrat.
Adoro te devoto is a setting of lines by St Thomas Aquinas in which McDowall displays her ability to write complex, multi-layered choral textures. Paul Conway draws a very apposite parallel with Allegri’s Miserere; I agree with that, though the musical lines are somewhat faster-moving than in Allegri’s piece. I’m not sure I’ve heard Deus, portus pacis previously. At times the music put me in mind of the choral writing of James MacMillan; perhaps it was the decorations of the soprano line that chiefly led me to that comparison. Both the text and music of God is light describe a journey from darkness to light, though the darkness is not as sombre as was the case in O Oriens. As in all the other pieces, Cecilia McDowall here demonstrates a genuine ear for interesting choral textures and for fine melodic lines. Love incorruptible, which sets words from St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, is scored for SSATB choir. All I can say is that to the listener the scoring seems much fuller than five parts; the lines interweave and the textures are rich. Stephen Layton closes the programme with The Lord is Good, which sets verses from the Book of Lamentations. Paul Conway unerringly hits the nail on the head when he opines that ‘the prevailing character of the piece is one of wistful longing and contrite entreaty’. This is an intense piece of writing and it contains particularly challenging parts for two soprano soloists; here the accomplished soloists are Anita Monserrat and Madeleine Todd.
I’ve deliberately left to last the consideration of the remaining music on this disc and there’s a good reason for that. Only a couple of weeks before this Hyperion disc arrived, I was sent a copy of a Naxos disc devoted to the organ music of Cecilia McDowall, played by William Fox. Fox includes in his programme the O Antiphon Sequence, which I’ll come to in a moment. He also offers the first recording of Three Antiphons. These are the same three pieces that Stephen Layton and his choir perform on the present CD, but the Naxos disc presents them in the composer’s 2006 adapted version for trumpet and organ. The 2006 version, which works very well, is not a straight transcription so admirers of the composer’s music will want to hear both that and the choral original. On balance, I prefer the choral settings. Ave Regina is for full choir plus a solo quintet and the textural opportunities of this scoring are most effectively explored by McDowall. Ave Maria is for upper voices only and the writing has a chaste purity. ‘Regina caeli’ is an Easter antiphon and McDowall’s setting is, in most respects, suitably joyful. However, she’s a composer who always keeps listeners on their toes and the final exclamation of ‘Alleluia’ actually diminuendos, which is an interesting surprise.
The O Antiphon Sequence consists of seven short movements, each of which is a response to the antiphons which are said or sung before the Magnificat at the office of Evensong or Vespers in the last week of Advent. Each piece in the set is based on a note in the diatonic scale: C – G – D – A – E – B – F. They are presented in date order so that ‘O Sapientia’ comes first and ‘O Emmanuel’ concludes the set. The organist here is Alexander Hamilton who was an Organ Scholar at Trinity College before going on to a similar role at Westminster Abbey (2018-20). Since September 2020 he has been Assistant Director of Music at Wells Cathedral. The choice of St Georges Chapel, Windsor Castle for this present recording is interesting: Hamilton was Organ Scholar there in 2014-15, prior to going to Cambridge. I wonder if, knowing the two organs in question, he concluded that the Windsor instrument would be better suited to this assignment than the one in Trinity College Chapel.
The Windsor organ is a Harrison & Harrison instrument, originally installed, I believe, in 1965, though it’s had some upgrades since then, the most recent of which was by Nicholson & Co in 2019. It serves McDowall’s music very well here. It was interesting to compare and contrast Alexander Hamilton’s account of the Sequence with that of William Fox. Fox’s recording is billed as the world premiere recording—made in the composer’s presence—and so it was, but only by four or five days! The Hyperion sessions also took place in March 2020 but by then the Fox performance was ‘in the can’. Though there are one or two places where I have a slight preference for one version over the other, overall, both recordings are very fine indeed.
Both organists successfully convey the suppressed tension in ‘O Sapientia’. Paul Conway justly describes ‘O Adonai’ as ‘spirited and impulsive’; it’s a terrific short piece. Here, I have a slight preference for the Hamilton account. I like the excellent reedy sounds he achieves in the manuals but what gives him the edge over the Fox recording, I think, is the greater potency of the contribution made by the pedal division of the Windsor organ. The Windsor pedals make another conspicuous but very different effect in ‘O Radix Jesse. This is a quiet, contemplative piece and the quiet, deep pools of sound from the pedals brings a real sense of mystery to Hamilton’s performance. ‘O Clavis David’ is an exciting toccata with energetic, chattering figurations on the manuals, beneath which Hamilton gets ear-tickling reedy effects from the pedal part.
‘O Oriens’ revisits the 2012 choral piece we heard earlier in the programme. However, as Paul Conway points out, the organ piece is only ‘allied’ to the choral setting. The sombre, hushed opening and close are common to both, but otherwise the organ piece, though closely related to the version for choir, follows a distinct path of its own. Comparison of the two performances is very interesting. Fox’s speed is a bit more measured and when the piece attains its climax his dynamics are restrained in comparison to Hamilton. I haven’t seen a score so I don’t know how loud the climax should be but the sound achieved on the Hamilton recording is very imposing and I like it a lot. Both organists are completely successful in ‘O Rex gentium’ and also in ‘O Emmanuel’. Here’s another bit of McDowall originality. In her music she doesn’t anticipate the joyful coming of Christ but, rather, her response to the antiphon is a subdued and thoughtful meditation on the well-known Advent plainchant hymn ‘Veni, Veni Emmanuel’.
If pressed to make a choice I would have to say that by a short head I prefer the Hamilton performance because the organ sound is even more rewarding than on the Naxos disc. That must be down to greater resources available on the Windsor organ since both instruments have been recorded very well indeed. As performances per se, both are splendid. In any event, I’d recommend that you purchase both discs since, other than the O Antiphon Sequence, the repertoire on the two CDs is completely different.
This excellent disc is another fine addition to the discography of the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. The choral pieces were recorded over a period of three years during which there were inevitable changes in personnel, yet the standard is consistent—and excellent. As ever, the freshness and discipline of this group of young singers is exemplary, showing just how thoroughly they are trained by Stephen Layton. Both in St George’s Chapel, Windsor and in the chapel of Trinity College, engineer David Hinitt and producer Adrian Peacock have recorded these performances expertly for Hyperion. Paul Conway’s notes are ideally informative.